We entered Malawi through the northern border with Tanzania. Our first encounter with the people was a police road block about 10 kms from the border. The barrier across the road was only open on the other side so we went across to pass by. An impatient policeman waved us to a stop and demanded to know why we were in such a hurry. Apparently it was an offence to drive on the wrong side. Sorry sir, we said. Now we were informed that it was an offence to say sorry. And he wasn't smiling. Perhaps we would like to go to court and be fined. That is the standard way of asking for a "consideration" - of course you can settle your "fine" direct with the gentleman concerned and eliminate the need for court! We continued our own bluff - so sorry we said, we didn't know etc etc. Well, did we have a Fanta? No, we only drink water - Fanta is bad for you. A novel? No, we can't read at night because we are camping and have no light. Once he discovered there were more just like us coming up behind, he decided he shouldn't push his luck and we were waved on. What disturbed us was the aggressive manner of the man. However, we had more to come. A second and third police roadblock tried similar tactics. One demanded to see, and then took away, Russ's International Drivers' Licence. Russ hopped out of the car and followed him demanding it back - the fellow didn't quite know what to do then and we were waved through again. We were stopped at two more roadblocks in the next 10km, but fortunately these were friendly. However, it was a sharp introduction to the people of the country whom we had been assured were a lovely friendly bunch!
Lake Malawi is one of the freshwater Rift Valley lakes and occupies about a third of the area of the country. It is the third largest lake in Africa and as we descended the mountains from Tanzania, we could see the aquamarine crystal shard shining in the sunlight. At times we drove right along the lake edge, at others we had to climb steep hills and veer inland as the mountains themselves plunged directly into the water.
The lakeshore is edged with golden sandy beaches - in any other country but this extremely poor one, it would be a developer's delight. There are some so-called resorts and some campgrounds, but mostly small fishing villages line the beach.
The snorkelling is well regarded in the lake so, with Jenny and Fred, we hired a boat to take us to a small island off the campground for some snorkelling and fishing. A young man called Patrick, but who preferred to be called Mel Gibson, would organise it all for 3 hours out including lunch. The boat was a fibreglass version of the dugout canoes all over the beach, in interesting condition. Although we were assured it would hold ten people, there was just enough room for the four of us to sit down on the floor of the boat with just our heads and shoulders sticking out. We borrowed snorkel gear from the owner of the camp and Patrick supplied the rods and bait. The rods were bamboo poles with some line tied on, and the bait was a bucket of worms. Then we were off with Patrick and his younger brother, Russell Crowe, paddling from the bow and the stern.
It had been raining heavily for some days (we had had a few soggy nights camping) and we expected the underwater visibility to be poor, but off the small granite island the water was quite clear. The fish life is amazing - there are as many colourful fish as on a coral reef, but without the background of coral, anemones and the like. With just the algae covered boulders all around, it felt like swimming in an aquarium. Lunch was a Coke, a bread roll and a mango. The bread roll was locally made - which means that the flour was also local, which means that the roll had quite a bit of crunchy sand mixed in! Not good on the teeth when you are not used to it.
That afternoon, Patrick convinced us to let him guide us through his village. He took us around the houses, introduced us to his twin brother, Banjo Patterson, took us inside his own house, introduced us to the headmaster at the local school and to the doctor at the small hospital. We saw the market with a goat carcass hanging up in the open air butcher's stall, we bought donut-like bread from a stall, we watched as a man hewed out the centre of a large log with an axe making a new dugout canoe, peered into kitchens, saw cassava root being prepared and had local children hanging off our arms as they followed us around.
That night we were off to the village chief's house for dinner and to watch the children dance and sing for us. The chief's son, William, came to collect us and led us into the courtyard. We sat on the ground on a bamboo mat and dishes were brought out - beef, rice, spinach and beans. The spinach we are sure was cassava leaves boiled, and the beef we are absolutely sure was goat. In fact we are pretty sure it was the same goat we saw hanging in the market earlier that afternoon with a large bit missing. So basically it was stringy goat stew and rice and veg. We enjoyed the goat for some hours to come, as most of it lodged in our teeth and took quite some time to remove.
The children then lined up and sang for us - no shy ones here; the song was belted out at full volume. Then after some dancing by the group, one of the children would pull up one of us to dance with them. After each of us had make a spectacle of ourselves, and the children had sung (at full voice) the national anthem in three languages, the evening was finished. And the chief made himself scarce - we didn't get to meet him at all.
A drive up the escarpment to Livingstonia was an adventure. It had been raining and the guide book says DON'T GO if it is wet. But Mark at the campground said the road was fine, so off we went. Livingstonia is a small mission village established by an Englishman in the late 1800s in memory of David Livingstone. The road was steep, pot-holed, slippery in spots and narrow, with the obligatory rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other, So what's new for African roads? Oh yes, it has 22 serious hairpin bends in 15km. The village was mildly interesting with some old buildings and a church with a big stained glass window. But the Stone House, the original home of the founding missionary and his wife, was a museum. It had a musty collection of historical items, the most interesting of which was an original letter from David Livingstone to his son telling him about his mother's death. The home though with its original furniture was an insight into the character of this particular missionary. It was generously proportioned, high-ceilinged, with glass windows all around and covered verandahs in a magnificent position at the top of the escarpment with panoramic views - no hovel for this man of God, nor would he live like his parishioners; he was very comfortable indeed, thank you.
The roads in the village itself were worse than the road up. They were not steep of course, but after the rain they were a quagmire of deep, slippery clay. At one stage the Landy just slid sideways while we had actually intended to go forward.
The road south and west to the capital Lilongwe veered away from the lake and we climbed through rolling mountains. With the hot wet climate, even the farmland has the air of rampant tropical vegetation; crops grow on steep-sided hills; grass grows up to 2 metres high right up to the edge of the road, making you feel hemmed in on a narrow strip of tar. Muddy mountain streams of deep ochre-red boil and swirl with rapids, and clouds nestle like cotton wool into the valleys. This is the wet season.
We passed through small muddy villages with people selling their crops by the roadside. Women washed clothes in the overflowing drains. We drove through rubber plantations with the trees diagonally sliced and white latex dripping into rough terracotta cups. People walked everwhere or rode bicycles - there were very few cars on the road. We knew why when we filled up with fuel. Fuel is expensive here - the equivalent of $1.60US a litre. Malawi has the lowest per capita annual income in Africa, and we worked out they would spend it all on 2 full tanks of fuel.
Lilongwe was just a stopover for the night, a small low-rise city built on hills. As we drove out in the early morning for the border, we had to share the road with swarms of people walking to work on both sides of the road. Crowds waited for the local transport, a minibus or the back of a small truck. The weather was clearing up which augered well for our next adventure - Zambia.